Anna Balev was born in Olomouc, in Moravia, in 1950. She grew up outside the city in the small village of Březce with her parents, three siblings and grandparents. Prior to the Communist coup, Anna’s father, Jaroslav, was a language professor at a nearby gymnázium. Anna describes him as an ‘avid Catholic’ who ‘went out of his way to provoke’ the communist authorities. He was arrested and sent to prison for two years. Anna’s mother, Blažena, returned to school to become a nurse in order to support the family once her father ran into trouble. Anna says that she was the only one in her class who was not a Pioneer and was instead sent to religion classes. Each year Anna spent the summer with her maternal uncle and aunt in Krnov, times she fondly recalls. Following the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, Anna’s brother left the country and settled in Canada.
Anna attended gymnázium in Šternberk and hoped to study languages at Charles University (she was taught French, German and Latin by her father), but was not accepted. She instead decided to study nursing, recognizing that a practical profession would make it easier to start a life elsewhere if she left the country. Anna studied for two years in Olomouc and moved to Prague where she worked at a psychiatric hospital. She then took a job in Karlovy Vary, where she was hired because of her German language skills. In 1975 Anna reconnected with her future husband, an American who had emigrated from Ukraine. The pair had met while she was living in Prague and he was visiting the capital city. They decided to marry in order for Anna to legally leave the country. After getting married in Karlovy Vary, Anna immediately set about getting permission to immigrate to the United States. She arrived in New York City in May 1976 and was handed her green card at the airport.
Anna says that she ‘fell in love immediately’ with the city and was astonished at the freedom she now enjoyed. While studying for her RN exam, Anna found a job at a women’s clinic. She subsequently worked at Roosevelt Hospital and for a plastic surgeon. Anna stopped practicing nursing when her first daughter was born in 1980. Her second daughter was born two years later. Anna also attended Hunter College part-time from her first year in New York. In 1985 she received degrees in English and theatre arts. Today Anna is the owner of a rental company and owns property in the Czech Republic as well as New York.
Anna has returned to the Czech Republic nearly every year since she left and has recently become a dual citizen of the Czech Republic and the United States. She is active in the Czech community in New York as a member of Sokol and the local chapter of SVU (Czechoslovak Academy of Arts and Sciences). Today, Anna lives in New York City with her husband.
“We were always very poor, due to political reasons, so basically my grandparents played a big part in my life. They gave us a place to stay; they supported us, giving us… If the pig was slaughtered we got some of that and otherwise we were just supporting ourselves by planting fruits and vegetables and having the animals at home so we can survive.”
“My brother is very spontaneous. He decides; he goes. So he very spontaneously on the way to the train, which is a 15 minute walk, he tells me ‘Come with me.’ He’s already packed, he’s going to the train, and he says ‘Come with me.’ I said ‘What do you mean? Like, right now, this minute?’ He says ‘Yeah, why not?’ I said ‘Yeah, but I’m just going to be a burden to you because I don’t know anything. I wouldn’t know how to take care of myself. I’d be just dependent on you; I don’t want to do it. But I am certainly going to try to get out when I become something, when I have a profession to fall back on.’ So he just went. I guess I was quite reasonable then. I’m pretty much down-to-earth, so I was thinking logically that it’s not practical to leave right now, and I should at least finish my studies in thegymnázium.
“But it certainly planted a bug in my head that I should follow him, and I was certain I could get out. And then I thought ‘Ok, I’ll still try to do the university’ and university didn’t work out; then I really purposefully became a nurse, figuring that I speak German, I’m surrounded by German-speaking countries, Germany and Austria, so I’m going to try to get there and I could work as a nurse. I found out also later on that in Germany there was a shortage of nurses so it would have been great. But there was no way to get out. Absolutely no way for me because we were considered such high-risk that we were not even allowed to go to Yugoslavia, which was the route that many people fled – and I admit, I would be the first one.”
You couldn’t even go on vacation to Yugoslavia?
“The voting I went through in Czechoslovakia was absolutely ridiculous. With the age of 18 you had the ‘right’ to vote, and it consisted of you being forced to go and vote. You were handed a paper filled out with the Communist candidates, which you folded and threw in some container. That was the extent of the voting. Absolutely absurd stuff. I don’t know if they were putting up some image for the Western countries because there was no real free election.”
Staying in America
“With my family, with my husband, with the properties, and emotionally, much more invested here. I love this country, very much so, because it gave me freedom. I was so fascinated when I came here in ’76, switched on the TV and people were bad-mouthing the president, for example. They were saying bad things about him or people high in the government. This was absolutely a no-no in Czechoslovakia. The freedom of speech was just, to me, so refreshing and so amazing. After ’89, I went there almost every year; I still do, so I saw the changes and all that. But you grow apart from these people. You become different, and I don’t think I would be accepted 100 percent back because I am different already.”